Sunday, 28 December 2014

Review of 2014

Reviews of 2011, 2012 and 2013.


Me standing around outside work, frowning.

In September 2013, I moved to 'that London' to pursue my new career as a class-traitor and absolute disgrace. Jettisoning those moving pictures I had once cherished so, I began a ceaseless and disgusting flirtation with their posh sister, West End theatre, whilst revelling in the perks of my job as Press Executive at the universe's premier music venue, the Royal Albert Hall. That's why this review of 2014 takes in not only my film viewing but also, for the first time, such things as plays, exhibitions and concerts. We'll start with the movies, though in time-honoured tradition...

***

FILMS

16 best discoveries of 2014, in descending order of utter, jawdropping brilliance:



Sommarnattens leende (Ingmar Bergman, 1955) aka Smiles of a Summer Night - Bergman does sex comedy - and the result is a deep, delicate, just about perfect movie, like the best of Lubitsch and Ophüls mixed with Partie de campagne.

Jeux interdits (René Clément, 1952) aka Forbidden Games - The children are both sensational, and the scenes concerning their obsessive friendship, their darkly comic quest and their wrestling with the biggest and most troubling questions in life are singularly and enduringly resonant, leading to a final scene that's as moving and powerful as cinema is ever going to get.



The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931) - By far the best of the five collaborations between future It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra and the mercurially gifted Barbara Stanwyck: a blistering, beautiful Pre-Code masterpiece. Her final speech on the stage that may well be the best thing she ever did - at which point I should add that she stars in my favourite film of all time, Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night.

Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984) - If you're interested in British history, class or sexual politics, it's completely fascinating, invigoratingly entertaining and extremely moving, with a hypnotically powerful, well-conceived pay-off.



Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947) - A stunning, staggeringly cynical melo-noir-ma about an amoral carnival huckster (Tyrone Power) using everyone he meets as he cuts a rapid path to the top. Gripping from first frame to last, it's simply one of the best of its decade: richly atmospheric, incisively intelligent and both fatalistic and unpredictable in the best tradition of the genre.

When the Wind Blows (Jimmy T. Murakami, 1986) - Hell. A devastating animated feature about the Atomic Age from the writer and director of The Snowman, which takes Peter Watkins' seminal drama-doc The War Game as its jumping off point, showing an archetypal, retired English couple as they prepare for an approaching nuclear strike.



Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) aka A Separation - A searing examination of contemporary morality that offers no easy answers and passes no shallow judgements on its damaged characters, instead giving us something akin to real life, albeit in a world that often seems so very far removed from our own

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) - Its USP is far more than a gimmick; rather, it's what enables Boyhood to create such an indelible impact: visually, viscerally and deep down in your soul.



Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012) - I told you that Matthew McConaughey was amazing. I spent 10 years saying it, while all he did was stand around on rom-com posters, leaning against things, but would you listen? No you would not. But I was right, I am the best.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) - A classic to rank alongside Tenenbaums and Rushmore, with two beautiful central performances - as well as fine ones from F. Murray Abraham and Tom Wilkinson - numerous comic high spots and a bewitching evocation of a mythical world not glimpsed on screen since the mighty Lubitsch passed on.



Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1927) - It's narratively simplistic, erotically confused and perhaps a little erratically played, but it's a visual feast like little before or since, and a fitting showcase for one of cinema's most beguiling, singular performers.

Three Strangers (Jean Negulesco, 1946) - Allergic to formula, yet richly and enduringly fatalistic in the familiar manner of co-writer John Huston, it's one film you won't forget in a hurry, right down to that classic final scene.



Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933) - The overall effect is unforgettable, with Frankie Darro exhibiting a raw star power in the lead, and the film tackling its subject head on, anticipating The Grapes of Wrath in its story of desperate people forced to wander aimlessly away from their homes and happiness in search of a living.

Skyscraper Souls (Edgar Selwyn, 1932) and Employees' Entrance (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933) - I'm pretending this is a single film, so I can squeeze in an extra one, though in a way I suppose it is. Two slices of intensely enjoyable Pre-Code entertainment, with Warren William's tyrannical, twinkly-eyed businessmen ruling a skyscraper and then a department store with an iron fist, whilst causing problems for a pair of young couples. Both movies are cynical, malevolent and richly textured, providing a vivid portrait of Depression-era America.



Mary and Max (Adam Elliott, 2009) - An animated Australian wonder that eschews easy sentimentality with admirable vigour, lending the mesmeric Que, Sera Sera sequence a haunting power, before a climactic scene that may even make Max weep big and salty tears.

The Beloved Rogue (Alan Crosland, 1927) - An extravagantly mounted silent version of the story later made as If I Were King, in which John Barrymore - if not approaching his scintillating Shakespearean apex - is at least astonishingly good.

and 10 old ones I still love beyond all measure:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945)
Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen, 1992)
Låt den rätte komma in (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) aka Let the Right One In
Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1984)
Crimes and Misdemeanours (Woody Allen, 1989)
Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
if.... (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)
Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987)
***


Watching this is mostly my life now.

Crazes: Joan Blondell, Pre-Code cinema, Bob Fosse
Continuing preoccupations: John Ford, Woody Allen, Barbara Stanwyck
Stuff I caught up on: A social life, the theatre, Woody Allen films I'd seen before.
Revelations: Ann Dvorak wiping the floor with everyone - even Paul Muni - in Scarface, a film I hadn't seen for a decade.
Happiest surprises: Vera-Ellen's exquisite, exotic dance numbers in the disposable, annoying Danny Kaye comedy, The Wonder Man, were a very rare treat. Joan Crawford not being shit in Flamingo Road was kind of surprising.
Biggest disappointment: I'd always thought Against All Odds sounded kind of fun. It was kind of not any fun. Lubitsch's Madame DuBarry was an example of a deluxe label - in this case Eureka's Masters of Cinema - attempting to re-appraise a film they happened to have got the rights to, but the movie being a tad rubs.
Oddest film: I'm not sure if it was the unnecessary neck brace and robot arms, or their wearer's somewhat misguided approach to wooing, which involved stealing a murderer's arms, but Mad Love. The Hatchet Man ran it a distant second.
Worst films: I saw some absolute dreck. The Boat That Rocked was absolutely hideous. Enchanted April lacked its moral turpitude but not its dearth of any conceivable entertainment value.
Some favourite moments: I must have watched Carol Haney doing Steam Heat in The Pajama Game 50 times. Choreography by Bob Fosse (but of course). The prologue to The Hatchet Man was staggering. The romantic scenes between Franchot Tone and Madeleine Carroll in The World Moves On were as lushly perfect as any I've ever seen, but also contained a rare and durable truth. Once again, though, the Annie Laurie scene from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the best thing I saw all year.
2014 was... A year I expanded my horizons beyond the cinema screen. I always come back to it, though, and early December was dominated by movies in the most delightful way.
Best film I saw at the cinema: Boyhood.
I was bored by: Too many things. Seeing the same gag for the entirety of Airplane II felt more like a chore than A Fun Thing to Do.
I wrote this pretty good review of _______________, you should read it if you have a minute:
Total number of films I've seen (new watches in brackets): 197 (151)


***

MUSIC


My pretend girlfriend.

The best concerts I saw this year were, conveniently enough, at work. The pick of the bunch was a mesmerising show by Lebanese electronic grunge pioneer Yasmine Hamdan in the Elgar Room back in June, her visceral, confrontational stage style and startlingly intense, involved vocal delivery cleverly disguising the fact that she was so full of fever she could barely speak above a whisper ahead of the show, and was having to devise new melodies on the spot to compensate for her truncated range. She's also tying with Michael Giacchino as the loveliest person-of-note I've met in my new job. Here she is putting up with me.

*affixes special boasting hat* I also saw Elvis Costello sing Shipbuilding - and an all-star line-up join together for The Auld Triangle - at the Irish State Visit concert, Ceiliúradh, enjoyed a private gig from Swedish country duo First Aid Kit alongside some schoolkids, and watched Van Morrison belt out Sometimes We Cry and then unaccountably do an impression of Joe Pesci during November's BluesFest. But the other three Hall shows that really stood out for me were James Taylor's beautiful, conversational set in October - where he played Sweet Baby James and the obscure, dazzling Millworker - Rufus Wainwright's mesmeric Prom, and Suede playing the whole of Dog Man Star during Teenage Cancer Trust week.


The intense humming of evil never felt so good.

And away from the Hall? Well, if Suede are my favourite band bar none, then The National are my favourite band since then, and though the O2 is - of course - essentially a retail park with no sense of history and a warehouse in the middle of it, I was right down the front where such things matter less. Even wearing my Hall-branded hat, I'll admit that their tour-ending extravaganza was really something quite wondrous. Two weeks later I was at the Roundhouse for the first time, as the group that dominated my teenage years - Manic Street Preachers - played the album that defined them, The Holy Bible, in its mesmerising entirety. Singer James Dean Bradfield had a sore throat, and I left the venue drenched in other men's sweat, but it was a totemic event with complete emotional resonance for me. I'd never expected to hear Of Walking Abortion, Archives of Pain or The Intense Humming of Evil played live and in some ways it felt like a fitting end to that chapter of my life. Then I put the record on the next day.

***

EXHIBITIONS



There's loads going on in London, much of it just around the corner from me on Exhibition Road. The Stranger Than Fiction exhibition - a history of Joan Fontcuberta fakes - was very good and the Rubbish Collection was even better, an improbably entertaining look at everything that the Science Museum had chucked out in a month. But for me, the best three I saw this year were Malevich (Tate Modern), Disobedient Objects (V&A) and Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (British Library).

Malevich was shown in conjunction with an exhibition of Matisse Cut-Outs. The Matisse was excellent - if a little heavy on fauna, often in the most incongruous places (the Nativity) - especially something like The Acrobats, a joyous celebration of movement made by an artist slipping into paralysis. And yet the Malevich made its rival's flaws readily apparent. Matisse was an artist sponsored by royals, prestigious galleries and big business, lauded everywhere he stepped. Malevich's career took shape in the cauldron of extraordinary social upheaval, with censorship, subjugation and grinding poverty all bleeding into his work. Poverty in the scraps of paper used for sketches, a canvas painted on both sides, and a shelf substituting for a conventional surface for one richly textured work; censorship in the way his topics and style was restricted and dialled back by an unprecedentedly authoritarian government; and subjugation in the way that the exhibition has several missing years, where its subject was simply slung in jail. This remarkably comprehensive exhibition followed every step of his evolution (and some would argue devolution), from derivative daubings to a complete deconstruction of the form - typified by the famous if staggeringly pretentious Black Square - to a final room that I found stunningly effective: the portraits a marriage of his stylistic preoccupations and the tradition of social art that felt less like a compromise than a sly and silent triumph.



The small, perfectly-formed Disobedient Objects charted around 50 years of social activism via blow-up cobblestones, satirical Top Trumps cards and good old-fashioned banners. My favourites were a wall of stickers and flyers collected around London lately ("Be nice to prostitutes," says one), a Burmese bank-note featuring Aung San Suu Kyi within the watermark, and these East Coast puppets, showing American oil billionaires following an Iraqi woman down the street, in her arms the dead body of her child.

Finally, the British Library's accessible, incisive Terror and Wonder charted the growth of Gothicism from The Castle of Otranto to The Wicker Man, via Mary Shelley's manuscript for Frankenstein, news periodicals about Jack the Ripper, and the Whitby goths. All in all, an exquisite treat, though if I hear that 90-second loop from The Bride of Frankenstein one more time, I may scream.

***

THEATRE

I've spent a good portion of this year in the theatre, being an insufferable London luvvie. Plays ranged from a musical revival par excellence (The Pajama Game at Shaftesbury Avenue), to an eye-opening depiction of the struggles facing injured servicemen (The Two Worlds of Charlie F at Richmond Theatre), to a star-led Shakespeare (Richard III at Trafalgar Studios), to a double-bill of Alan Bennett one-acts about the Cambridge Spies (Single Spies at Rose Theatre Kingston), but my favourites were these, in ascending order...



5. The Scottsboro Boys (Garrick Theatre) - A confrontational take on a notorious miscarriage of justice concerning eight African-Americans accused of rape, which tells its story via the cartoonish characterisation, fast-paced double-talk and blackface routines of a minstrel show. Amidst virtuosic tap routines, nostalgic ballads and courtroom theatrics emerges a white-hot, righteous fury, informing the kind of low-key, downbeat ending that lodges in your brain and then just refuses to leave. This symbolically minimalist production took aim at everything from slavery to yellow journalism to the idea of the minstrel show itself: an appropriation and perversion of African-American culture in which experiences are packaged for profit and stripped of their power. At times the broad posturing of the show's two chief comic characters did jar with my own sensibility, but it was also faithful to the genre it was embracing, subverting and then ingeniously corrupting, and the overall effect was of a bold experiment that had paid off almost completely.



4. Let the Right One In (Apollo Theatre) - The best performance I saw this year wasn't on the big screen or the small screen, it was at the Apollo Theatre, where Rebecca Benson's haunting, tender, guiltily vicious take on the genderless, 200-year-old vampire Eli threatened to bring the roof down once more. A Scottish production which had transferred via the Royal Court, it pared down the narrative from the 2008 Swedish vampire flick, cranked up the poignancy and then just let Benson do her thing, which was simply electrifying to behold. Even aside from her otherworldly performance, lit by moments of humour and shocking violence, there was plenty to enjoy, including an imaginative set that allowed for one stunning coup de théâtre, and an effective performance from Martin Quinn as Oskar (who nevertheless seemed a little old), but it was Benson's blood-drenched, contralto theatrics that took this somewhere truly remarkable, and I can't wait to see what she does next.



3. The Drowned Man (Temple Studios/National Theatre) introduced me, somewhat belatedly, to the concept of immersive theatre. Turning a four-storey warehouse near Paddington station into a beach, a seedy bar and a movie studio of indeterminate age, Punchdrunk presented a dizzying story of love, redemption and murder, seen in snippets depending on just where in the vast, sprawling sets you happened to have wondered. I spent quite a bit of trailing an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck bit-part player flogging goods on the side, who got a second shot at the exact moment his life seemed to be over. As he walked into the distance, a mesmeric dance began atop of a caravan, feeding into a sickening ballet of rape and violence, the show degenerating into an orgy of destruction. It was a magnificent achievement and I found its incomplete nature - unique to every patron - a remarkable and enduringly fascinating proposition.



2. Skylight (Wyndham Theatre) - Carey Mulligan is about the best young actor on the planet and this David Hare play was a fitting showcase for her stunning talents, the vein in her temple twitching as her opinionated schoolteacher's life was turned inside out by a man from her past, charismatic capitalist Bill Nighy. While Mulligan, in her West End debut, was a "do gooder" with a self-destructive streak, Nighy's ruthlessness in the world of business was offset by a softness and enduring affection for his former lover that made their scenes a bittersweet dance of denial, recrimination and repair. A couple of references unavoidably dated the play - I'd forgotten that social workers were a tabloid scourge in the mid-'90s - but it drew you inexorably and entirely into its drably beautiful bedsit world, and had a vast amount to say about both our purpose on this planet and the ugly collision between personal and professional lives, thanks to subtly masterful staging, great writing and a pair of utterly exceptional performances.



1. The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales Theatre) - The best thing I have ever seen in a theatre. Hysterically funny, stingingly satirical and full of the most horrendous earworms. And maggots.

The worst, incidentally, was Ballyturk, the National Theatre's highly embarrassing, meaningless Beckett rip-off. I'm back for Man and Superman in May. Bernard Shaw + Ralph Fiennes cannot possibly fail.

***

BOOKS



I zipped through three of Ben Macintyre's populist, novelistic and sharply written historical bromances - on Kim Philby, Eddie Chapman and Adam Worth - enjoyed Hilary Mantel's dense, epic and labyrinthine Wolf Hall (though it took me an age), and finally got around to Pride and Prejudice, which is just as good as everyone already knows it is. Todd McCarthy's mammoth tome on Howard Hawks was extremely boring and entirely lacking insight into the great director's character, though it remains a useful reference for those delving into the production history of his movies.

The first half of Morrissey's autobiography was pretty good, especially the section on poets like A. E. Houseman, but the second was interminable and extremely hard to like, much like the man himself. Perhaps that's the point, though: did he really need an editor, or is this unfiltered portrait more valuable than a better book might have been? I collected some of the more self-parodical passages here.

Far more enjoyable in the memoir stakes was Hollywood by Garson Kanin, one of the great - if most erratic - screenwriters of his generation. It traverses similar ground to David Niven's Bring on the Empty Horses - insecure starlets, vain swordsmen, anecdotes about Garbo, Chaplin et al - but benefits from Kanin's fusion of blistering wit and appealing self-deprecation, and his interest in the moguls who shaped the industry, particularly Sam Goldwyn, informed by a colourful, scholarly preoccupation with film history. Then at the end he starts getting all dewy-eyed about a brothel, but you can't have everything.

***

TV



Aside from Sherlock - obviously - the year's highlight was GBH, Alan Bleasdale's staggering allegorical drama/thriller/black comedy about stress and socialism, powered by Robert Lindsay's tour-de-force. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, or near it, was The Apprentice, which I finally cottoned onto and which gave me no end of joy, appearing to have a comic genius as an editor. Parks and Recreation's sixth season was the weakest since the first, a whiff of desperation in the nose as it fell back on guest stars, European jaunts and new characters (fuck off Craig), though when it worked, it worked, with Amy Poehler terrific and Chris Pratt still just about the funniest thing on Earth. Brooklyn Nine-Nine had too many bad jokes and weak supporting characters, though Samberg was exceptional and I found the romance astonishingly effective.

***

That's all for this year. Thanks for reading.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Pre-Code mania, The World Moves On, and radicals reunited - Reviews #199

I'm a huge fan of Pre-Code cinema, those films made between the advent of sound cinema and the censorship restrictions imposed from mid-1934 onwards, and of the Forbidden Hollywood DVD series, which has done a fine job of documenting it. I've written about this a few times before, and reviewed the third Forbidden Hollywood set earlier this year. I'd never seen the second, though, so I did. And then I watched Vol. 7 as well.

Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 2:



The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930) - Married woman Norma Shearer responds to husband Chester Morris’s infidelity by engaging in one of her own, which doesn’t go very well.

Shearer won the 1930 Best Actress Oscar for this museum piece, which does a remarkably good job of examining the double standards inherent in sexual politics, but just isn’t very enjoyable to watch.

She had given great performances already (The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg) and would go on to provide many more (A Free Soul - see below - Romeo & Juliet, The Women), but here she’s hamstrung by mundane dialogue, slow, uninvolving plotting and erratic sound recording – the scene in which she properly loses it with Morris just a lot of high-pitched whining.

She does, however, rock an extremely cool bandana. (2)



A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931) - A provocative Pre-Code drama about a free-spirited young woman (Norma Shearer), the slave-trading, opium-dealing gambler she loves (Clark Gable), and her alcoholic lawyer father (Lionel Barrymore), who just got the utter, utter bastard off a murder charge.

The film was celebrated at the time for Barrymore’s performance – which climaxes with a 12-minute, one-take courtroom speech best filed under ‘narratively preposterous’ – but by far the most interesting thing about it today is Shearer’s modern, naturalistic characterisation, which hurdles some sentimental obstacles to provide a vivid portrait of a passionate, straight-shooting and sexually open young woman, an impression never entirely banished by the moral lessons doled out at the finish. There’s a little of her standing around in gowns like she’s in a George Hurrell photo, or acting in profile as was the early ‘30s fashion, but there’s also fire in her belly and in her loins, an arresting proposition even now.

It’s also an extremely good-looking film, with MGM staffer William Daniels drenching Shearer in light and causing her to positively glow, then striking up interesting but not ostentatious angles wherever he finds himself – the courtroom, the forest or an apartment above a speak-easy.

For those things, James Gleason’s affecting supporting characterisation and the chance to see Gable in his ‘moral flotsam’ era (as the magnificently-named Ace Wilfong), it’s well worth it. Just don’t expect the story to hold up to the finish or Barrymore’s performance to blow you away. He did great things in movies, but not great like his brother Jack, and not often. He’s too crusty, too mawkish, and ultimately too much. (3)



"I thought engineering was a profession, not an affliction."
Female (Michael Curtiz, 1933) - Ruth Chatterton has everything she could want: a dock-off car factory, a ready wit and a succession of young men to boff as her resident organist plays Shanghai Lil. Everything, in fact, except a real man. It's when she meets one of those (George Brent), that her saucy, ordered existence starts to go haywire.

This frank, funny comedy-drama about love, business and embryonic feminism doesn't perhaps retain the courage of its convictions (or else has different convictions to the ones you might like), but it also has a unique premise and vantage point, some stylish direction by Michael Curtiz, and a knockout performance from Chatterton as a blistering business mind (comment reserved on how admirable I find this trait) with a beating heart and a habit of draping herself over cushions on the library floor. (3)



*SOME SPOILERS*
Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
- What a cast: not only Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis and Joan Blondell as the titular three, but also Bogart, Edward Arnold, Warren William, Lyle Talbot, the young Anne Shirley (as Dawn O'Day) and - unbilled - Frankie Darro and Glenda Farrell.

Can the film live up to such an assembly and to its reputation as a landmark of Pre-Code cinema? Well, yes and no. Mostly no.

There's certainly adult material to spare, as Dvorak's heroine turns from a teen girl who reads porn in bed to her classmates, to a well-respected member of society dogged by sexual repression and emotional malaise, to a sallow drug addict tied by romantic obsession to a pathetic coward.

But while her role is interesting and she makes what she can of it, it's nothing like the showcase she got in Scarface. At 64 minutes, this should be a short, sharp shock of a film, utilising her power, naturalism and lack of vanity, while contrasting her character's lot with that of her two old school acquaintances (Joan Blondell and Bette Davis). Instead, there's a cherubic, tousle-haired kid, a host of montages filling us in on various boxing results from 1919 to the early '30s, and so much plot that you start to wonder if it's just a trailer for a mini-series.

As a result, Blondell and William get just one great scene each (she in a reform school, he slapping down a blackmailer) and Davis doesn't get any, perhaps kept on retainer to look after the kid, as that's all her character seems to do, and not very well at that.

It's often bracingly adult, and there are excellent moments, including Dvorak's sad heart-to-heart with William, and that shocking ending, but its thrills are often more of the 'I can't believe they got away with that' variety, than the 'Jeeves, clear a space in my all-time top 10' kind. Like having a whacked-out Dvorak not even bothering to fight for the kid she's left in the next room, and opting instead to taunt Blondell. Or Edward Arnold pulling out his nose hairs.

Interestingly (well, I thought so), Dvorak's trouble - an uncontainable restlessness despite an outwardly perfect life - is one that also informed a lot of film noir, including the 1948 movie Pitfall, in which Dick Powell jacks in the American Dream for who knows what.

I wish Three on a Match was in the same league, but despite Dvorak, the subject matter and a few choice moments, it's ultimately too choppy and unfocused to really come off.

Incidentally, this was early in Bogart's career, when he was only able to intimidate women and five-year-olds. (2.5)



Night Nurse (William Wellman, 1931) - This notorious Pre-Code melodrama from William Wellman mixes mystery, horror, sentiment, social drama, romance, thriller elements and gratuitous scenes of women in their underwear to memorable effect.

Barbara Stanwyck is in dynamic form as a kind-hearted nurse who starts kicking arse when she realises that two kids in her care are in danger, setting her at loggerheads with their drug-addled, dipsomaniac mother, a creepy doctor with a twitch, and Clark Gable - notably cast as a psychotic, woman-beating chauffeur.

It doesn't exactly gel and it's often too unpleasant to truly enjoy, but it is a fast-moving, fascinating snapshot of where Hollywood was heading prior to the censorship clampdown, with good supporting parts for Joan Blondell and a curiously cast Ben Lyon, as well as a notable showcase for Stanwyck, who was at that time the most real, explosive actress in Hollywood. There are moments of uncertainty and awkwardness in what was one of her first performances, but she plays the big moments with rare and unquestionable élan. In simplest terms: was there ever an actress who was better at shouting?

Her star power and street smarts keep this one powering on, even when its disparate elements somewhat jar, and Wellman resorts to no fewer than three scenes of Stanwyck and Blondell in their bras and pants. Not that they don't look nice. (3)

Summary: There are no cast-iron classics in this second volume, but it's a fascinating snapshot of where gender politics were at in the early 1930s, and how Hollywood held a shaky, sometimes nervous mirror up to the modern, sexually-voracious young woman.

Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 7:



The Hatchet Man (William Wellman, 1932) - One of the most bizarre and - in its way - brilliant films of the early '30s, with Edward G. Robinson as a Chinese hitman with an ancient code of ethics.

The prologue is absolute dynamite, with Eddie walking the mean streets of Chinatown in 1910s San Francisco - director Wellman evoking it with tracking shots and cacophonous gongs - on his way to murder his best friend over an unforgivable transgression. Yes, these are white dudes made up to look 'yellow', in the words of the opening text, but their encounter - stately, unsentimental and yet desperately moving - bleeds with a love and respect for the peculiarities of the Chinese character and culture, and ends with a sickening thud.

After that, we skip forward to the present day (1932), where Robinson has had a haircut, put on a suit and buried his hatchet. He has a solid job not murdering people, a similarly Chinese fiancée (a disastrously miscast Loretta Young) and an extremely untrustworthy new bodyguard (Leslie Fenton from Wellman's The Public Enemy, which is referenced with another trussed-up corpse). But with trouble brewing, we know it won't be long before he has to put an axe up his sleeve again.

The contemporary material is weirdly paced, lacks the effortless grace and beauty of the opening, and suffers as a result of Young's female lead, who's poorly written and played. But for every moment that seems clichéd, racially dubious or extravagantly silly, there's another that's culturally sensitive or utterly new, while Robinson is utterly sensational as the eponymous hero, what seems at first mention to be a laughable piece of casting rendered a masterstroke simply through the force of his monumental talent. It may be my favourite of his many great performances: stoical, powerful and redolent with a righteous menace backed up by one of those strict moral codes essential to any self-respecting hitman.

The ending is bloody brilliant too. (3)



"Business is business."
Skyscraper Souls (Edgar Selwyn, 1932) - An exceptional melodrama telling interlocking stories within a 100-storey art deco skyscraper, as owner (and incorrigible lothario) Warren William strives to own the building outright, virginal secretary Maureen O'Sullivan turns heads and falls in love, a lonely jeweller (Jean Hersholt) pines after a model with a past, and a half-dozen other stories come to fruition.

It's unpredictable, novelistic and groundbreaking - paving the way for everything from Grand Hotel to Four Hours to Kill! to Pulp Fiction - with a barnstorming performance from William, and a beautifully tender one from the miraculously talented Hersholt. The only drawback for me is a final five minutes that wanders into the realm of the ridiculous, though that may be a matter of taste. (4)



Employees' Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933) - Hollywood was never shy about trying to repeat its successes. Take Blessed Event, for example, the 1932 Lee Tracy vehicle. That was a massive success, so the next year they took an existing property – the play, Miss Lonelyhearts – changed just about everything about it, and – hey presto – another Tracy film about a scurrilous hack romancing a girl, ruining another’s life and tangling with a gangster, called Advice to the Lovelorn (the film after which I named this blog).

Another of 1932’s big successes was Skyscraper Souls. The next year? Well, swap a 100-storey building for a department store and away we go: once more, Warren William is a workaholic heel manipulating the lives of those in his building, his amorous desires almost spelling the end for a young couple who work there, and his heartlessness leading to at least one conspicuous tragedy. The difference between this and Advice to the Lovelorn? This one’s just as good as the original.

The first thing to say is that William is magnificent. Just magnificent. His career soon slipped into bit parts and B-movies, precisely because the thing he was good at – peddling smut and general malevolence with a raised voice or a raised eyebrow – was outlawed by the imposition of the 1934 Production Code. Here, he’s in his absolute element. There’s barely a nice thing that one can say about his arrogant, selfish, self-made megalomaniac, but only barely: shreds of justification and humanity occasionally flash before your eyes, before he’s back to gloating over his misdeeds, cursing the weak, disrespecting the dead – holding forth with the style of John Barrymore. The film judges his anti-hero as much as it needs to, but no more, an approach that works wonders. (Note to Scorsese: you didn’t do this in The Wolf of Wall Street. Keep up.)

I’m not a big fan of Loretta Young, but she’s fairly good in a role lacking the sanctimony of her later work, and the rest of the cast is spot on, from the never-knowingly-not-one-note Alice White as a frankly disgraceful flapper (she actually starred in a film the previous year called The Naughty Flirt!), Wallace Ford as William’s new right-hand man, and Frank Reicher in a deliciously cynical recurring role as a supplier put out of business by the central sociopath.

The material is also unfailingly great: pithy, exciting, often blackly amusing, with a rich evocation of Depression-era New York, and Pre-Code supremo Roy Del Ruth – who helmed most of Cagney’s fastest, funniest films at Warner, as well as Blessed Event – gives it both barrels throughout, leading to an incredibly satisfying pay-off. Chalk one up for Hollywood unoriginality. Why did they stop there? (4)



Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, 1933) - A chic remake of Illicit - made just two years earlier - with Bette Davis taking over the Stanwyck role of an independent woman who acquiesces to marriage, then watches as it impinges on her happiness through jealousy and conformity.

Whereas Illicit was drab, talky and stiflingly serious, this one is plush, slim and occasionally amusing, with the heroine now a fashion artist for the likes of Cosmopolitan, and the completely rewritten script finding space for Frank McHugh as a culture vulture secretly obsessed with his own wife.

Ironically, this lighter, shorter treatment makes the film's themes of compromise and emotional maturity slightly more coherent, but the film does still suffer from the same problems: the material remains muddled, reaches few conclusions that aren't staggeringly obvious, and just isn't that fun to watch, especially when it turns nasty and moralistic towards the end.

Davis, looking unusually glamorous, is quite good in the lead but still learning her craft, and unable to transcend the script. Her characterisation ultimately lacks the depth of Stanwyck's, though also the early-talkie stiltedness.

One of the oddest things about the movie is the appearance of a big bluebottle during two of the love scenes. At 47:26, a fly crawls around on Davis's arm while she's necking with Raymond; then at 59:34, there's another one. Very odd; who was on no-flies-during-the-romantic-bits duty on this one? (2)

Summary: Though the packaging is merely functional - whereas once it was exquisite - and the discs are of the oft-maligned DVD-R variety, this is perhaps the best Forbidden Hollywood set yet, featuring two titanic achievements of the Pre-Code era, one extraordinarily odd minor gem, and just the single piece of dispensable pap.

I'm going to get the sixth set next. I've put Vol. 2 on Amazon Marketplace already.

***

Joan Blondell double-bill:



I've Got Your Number (Ray Enright, 1934)
- A ludicrously entertaining Pre-Code comedy-thriller, with Pat O'Brien as an alarmingly cocksure, slightly sexist telephone repairman who spends both his work time and his free time getting his end away, until he falls in love with a switchboard operator (Joan Blondell) and finds himself neck-deep in intrigue.

It's lightning-paced fun: extremely well put-together, with fine performances from the leads, a delightful bit from Glenda Farrell as a phony, horny mystic, and a deft balance between tension, humour and pathos − the latter largely provided by Eugene Pallette as a gravel-throated foreman whose bark is worse than this bite.

If you like it, you'll be pleased (if surprised) to learn that it isn't the only film of its kind: William Wellman made a romantic crime-comedy about trouble-shooting phone engineers the next month, called Looking for Trouble. This one's sexier, but that one climaxes with a recreation of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake so realistic that it still turns up in documentaries, so take your pick. (3.5)



Havana Widows (Ray Enright, 1933) - A very funny Pre-Coder, with Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as struggling showgirls who head for Havana, hoping to fit a frisky millionaire (like Guy Kibbee) with a breach of promise suit. Instead, Blondell falls for the Guy's dishy son (Lyle Talbot), while her rightly suspicious boyfriend (Allen Jenkins) turns up in town.

Some of these Blondell and Farrell pictures are dull and contrived, others are an absolute treat, and it's impossible to guess which will fall where. This one's firmly in the latter camp, with a steady stream of top-quality jokes - including some great sight gags - and a hilarious supporting performance from peerless character comic Frank McHugh, whose incompetent lawyer is drunk for the entire film. (3.5)

***

... another Stanwyck. Only the second in this update. I'm slipping.


She doesn't look like this at any point during the film. Nice, though, isn't it?

*MINOR SPOILERS*
Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937)
- This lush soaper features perhaps Barbara Stanwyck's most widely-praised performance, but the whole film is done in such broad strokes that there's no room for those little details that always lit up her greatest performances.

Stanwyck is the brash, peroxided working-class mother who marries into wealth, then tries to do right by her daughter (Anne Shirley) after the marriage heads south. It's one of those films where characters act with such a cartoonish lack of self-awareness that it's difficult to suspend your disbelief − Stanwyck has spent years in high society but would still apparently turn up to a country club looking like a drag queen on the game − though its (often calculated) big moments are likely to do a job on you, even as you realise you're being manipulated. The best of the bunch is that scene between mother and daughter on the sleeper train, a heart-melting evocation of enduring love that's difficult to wrench from your mind afterwards.

The concept of the 'star vehicle' is largely a redundant one now, but that's what Stella Dallas is. Ironic, then, that it's more a portrait of what Hollywood execs in 1937 thought Stanwyck was best at − sentimental, one-note matriarchal fare − than what she actually was: namely beguiling sincerity and deft, self-mocking humour, spiked with a desperate vulnerability.

She's still good, though − of course she is − as is Shirley, whose approach to line-readings is to try to make each more frenziedly impassioned than the last, a tactic that works surprisingly well in these surroundings. Her speech about the bonds we form in adversity being the ones that tend to really matter also seems to contain some essential truth, in a film that's often more artifice than reality. (2.5)

***

... and another John Ford movie. One of his most interesting, in some respects, though certainly not one of his best.



The World Moves On (John Ford, 1934) - John Ford’s Downton Abbey is wildly erratic but, amidst much contrivance and the clunk of bad dialogue, contains some of the most heightened, potent romantic sequences in the history of American film. For that, some visual flourishes and perhaps the odd historical quirk, it’s simply a must for anyone who loves this period of cinema.

Kicking off with a prologue set in 1825, decamping to World War One for most of its duration, then closing with a coda that takes in the Roaring ‘20s and beyond, it’s a family saga of the type popular in the early ‘30s, that follows a family of cotton magnates, its disparate, wealthy sons and daughters spanning the globe from New Orleans to Britain to France and Germany, and, in the case of Franchot Tone and Madeleine Carroll, falling madly and hopelessly in love.

Their romantic sequences are utterly astonishing: almost parodical in their perfection, as extraordinarily potent, moving and yet realistic as any I’ve ever seen. The first is a garden sequence, during that prologue, in which the pair obliquely, tentatively and then explicitly discuss how their love can never be. The second, in 1914, has their descendants haunted by that lost love: feeling they’ve seen each other before, the viewer’s spine-tingling as an 89-year-old melody comes to them from somewhere deep within. And the next one, with Tone dropping in on Carroll unexpectedly, convalescing after a bomb blast, is only a mite less wondrous.

There are other moments that work too, including a dizzying wedding flashback that briefly reinvents the grammar of cinema, shifting from a line of dialogue on an ocean liner to a still photo, which turns out to be on a submarine door, to footage of the nuptials themselves, to a watery action sequence that’s at first invigoratingly voyeuristic, and then – when you realise exactly what’s happening – a battle between vivid direction and extremely daft plotting.

And that’s where Downton Abbey comes into this, for where else will you find such coincidences: the family conveniently representing competing sides in the war, then facing off on the field of battle and, you think for a moment, about to meet in an interrogation room, in a major subplot that is set up and then must surely have been chopped prior to release! Nobody has any self-awareness, things are worth exactly $100m, someone can become “the richest woman in the world” – it’s like it was written by me, aged seven. And there’s bad dialogue to spare. Often Ford and his talented leads can triumph over it, but then there are passages of stilted discomfort or excessive exposition – like Tone’s 1925 speech, in which he tells each member of the family what they have been doing for the past few years.

And then you have Stepin Fetchit, providing his inimitably racist, unfunny comic relief, as an African-American who accidentally joins the French Foreign Legion. Debate still rages over whether Fetchit was an important standard-bearer for black entertainers – giving minority audiences someone to cheer and blazing a trail for other, less embarrassing, performers to follow – or if his persona of a black man so stupid that he could barely speak was not only hideously offensive, but also enduringly damaging in that it confirmed society’s prejudices in the minds of audiences. Whichever of those is true – and I actually think that both are the case, I have never laughed at anything he has ever done. What Ford does do is ultimately place him on a narrative – if not a societal – level with his white counterparts, and puts him in a context where his inarticulacy is shown as a character trait, rather than a racial one – a crucial distinction in keeping with the director’s progressive politics (two years later he would confound contemporary expectations by devoting the final shot of The Prisoner of Shark Island to the reunion of a black family, which is basically unheard of in ‘30s Hollywood films). If only he cared as much about giving Manchester its due. Audiences in northern England will doubtless be deeply troubled by Irish actor Lumsden Hare doing the worst Mancunian accent in the history of the world. For any foreigners/Londoners reading, “tha knows” is a pointless appendage to sentences added by Yorkshiremen, not people from Manchester.

In terms of Ford’s visual style here, there are some very showy and clever decisions, like the artfully directed sequence in which Reginald Denny's German soldier returns home, Ford’s camera focusing on the doorway, Tone then exiting through it, as the family unit is complete once more. The sequence is set up with a shot of their anxious anticipation that is quite exquisitely, recognisably Fordian in composition.

It’s also an interesting movie in Ford’s movie for his visceral war footage – including some very tasty shakycam – which is very convincing, even if there is far too much of it, and an abundance of tracking shots. Ford used these sparingly once his style was cemented, but in the years after training under legendary German filmmaker (and fellow Fox contractee) F. W. Murnau in 1927-8, he employed them a lot: in silent films like Four Sons and the recently rediscovered Upstream and, once sound equipment became more mobile, throughout The World Moves On.

Even though it is far more impressive in the way it’s directed than written, its viewpoint, haunted by the Great War and the Wall Street Crash, opposed to arming and nationalism, advocating faith and family, is a fascinating snapshot of morality as it existed in 1934 – and of its director’s preoccupations at that time, especially for those familiar with his exuberant flagwaving (and career as a propagandist) throughout the coming conflict. Ford was one of the few filmmakers of the period whose complex, constantly evolving politics can be seen through his work. Though he lied a lot in interviews, there seems to be some truth in what he told Peter Bogdanovich in the 1960s: that his main reason for making movies was to articulate the way he saw the world. He described himself the next year as “a socialist democrat – always left”, and this is not only a heartfelt advocation of pacifist politics, but also one of the first Hollywood films to depict the Nazis as warmongers, a practice soon clamped down upon by the fascist sympathiser in charge of the censorship office, Joseph Breen.

There’s plenty to get your teeth into, then, and a few scenes to truly and unreservedly treasure, in this big, silly, sometimes magnificent Fordian film. (2.5)

***



Return of the Secaucus Seven (John Sayles, 1979) - This early indie from writer-director John Sayles is an exploration of early-30s malaise, as a group of friends talk about their frustrations – and minor victories – in life and love.

The direction is primitive and the acting can be wooden, with only Mark Arnott and regular Sayles collaborator David Strathairn staying free of splinters, but Sayles is perhaps the best, most naturalistic writer of dialogue in movies, and his script is full of insights into the sacrifices and difficulties of adulthood, as we chase fulfilment through romance, artistic expression and worthy work.

The director himself appears briefly as Howie, a hotel delivery man with three young kids, who’s perhaps the most interesting character in this thoughtful, intelligent and ultimately unresolved film. (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Barbara Stanwyck, Before Midnight and the McConaissance - Reviews #198

I had a couple of days off work and the deposit back after my house move, so I bought a stack of DVDs, dug out some others, and watched the lot. My current preoccupations are Joan Blondell and Matthew McConaughey, and two of my enduring ones are John Ford and Barbara Stanwyck, so they dominated the holiday. It was great.

STANWYCK STUFF:



Barbara Stanwyck was simply one of the greatest actors who ever lived. I'm not saying she couldn't be annoying, phone it in or ham it up beyond reason, but there was something about her best performances - a beguiling sincerity, a breathtaking vulnerability backed by an inner steel - that no other actor has ever had. Her finest movies are stuffed with these moments that others happen upon once or perhaps twice in a career: Remember the Night and Ball of Fire are just one after another. Recently I've been delving into some of her less celebrated films, with predictably variable results. I found one absolute masterpiece though, which made sitting through the others entirely worthwhile...



Illicit (Archie Mayo, 1931) - A very talky early talkie, primitive in execution, that nevertheless has an interesting enough premise to just about sustain it, as young couple Dick (James Rennie) and Anne (Barbara Stanwyck) talk (and talk and talk) about the virtues of living in sin, as opposed to married life.

Co-written by Robert Riskin, who penned most of Capra's best films, it's creaky as hell, replete with comic interludes that no longer make any sense - most of them featuring Charles Butterworth - and has a viewpoint that wobbles throughout and then falls over at the end, but it's sporadically insightful, and unusually daring in the topics it takes on.

There's also a scene in which Stanwyck and Natalie Moorhead argue about who loves Dick the most. Huh-huh. (2)

***



*MINOR SPOILERS*
The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931)
- This is by far the best of the five collaborations between future It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra and the mercurially gifted Barbara Stanwyck: a blistering, beautiful Pre-Code masterpiece about a minister's daughter (Stanwyck) who enters the religion racket, selling salvation to small-town folk through a mixture of pageantry and planted miracles.

There are three passages in particular that stand out: the sensational opening sequence, unlike anything else I've ever seen, in which Stanwyck lays into a church-full of parishioners for their staggering hypocrisy, blasting them with two barrels of righteous fury as they cower for cover; her overwhelming beach-side confession; and a final speech on the stage that may well be the best thing she ever did - at which point I should add that she stars in my favourite film of all time, Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night.

A subplot about Stanwyck's relationship with a blind songwriter (David Manners) sounds hackneyed and trite on paper, but his character is completely lacking in self-pity throughout their romance, and, despite a couple of slow scenes in his apartment, taken as a whole it's wonderfully rendered, a story of unquestioning love and mutual reliance to rank with something like Damon Runyon's The Big Street.

And for Pre-Code nerds, there's a daring cynicism about some of the religious material, one exclamation that would have been deemed 'blasphemy' a few years later, and an extended middle finger. All pretty racy, I'm sure you'll agree.

Some of the plotting is a little convenient and I'm not sure that it needs the action climax it gets - before a perfect coda - but Joseph Walker's jawdropping imagery lives long in the mind (that chat in the dark, Stanwyck and Manners' profiles glinting in a far-off light!), and the star is in the form of her life (and never looked hotter, if I'm being honest), giving the kind of performance that you see once and then never forget. (4)

***



Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948) - A phenomenally successful radio play becomes a radio play with pictures, as whiny, well-off invalid Barbara Stanwyck overhears a murder plot after getting the wrong number, then tries to unravel the mystery, across phone calls, recollections and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. It's unremittingly nasty, and far too derivative of its source, but pretty entertaining in the end, and though Stanwyck is at her most irritating, she does flash into brilliant life during the final scene. (2.5)

***



Blowing Wild (Hugo Fregonese, 1953) - An extremely silly but sometimes watchable action drama, apparently written by an exciteable eight-year-old, in which ageing stars fight over love and oil in some South American backwater.

Gary Cooper plays a two-fisted driller working for old pal Anthony Quinn, who's cheerily oblivious of the fact Coops once had a fling with his old lady (Barbara Stanwyck, exhibiting that 140-a-day latter-career croak). Meanwhile, sultry Ruth Roman tells whoppers and Ward Bond has severe difficulties with one of the worst scripts of all time.

It's ugly and paper-thin, but weirdly entertaining for an hour, incorporating a barroom fight, some extended fun with nitroglycerin and various shenanigans with a gaggle of clichéd bandits.

Then the wheels fall off completely, as the story enters the realm of the ridiculous, and Stanwyck and Cooper engage in two showdowns that incorporate the most hysterically unconvincing acting either of them ever did. Seeing two legends brought so low is genuinely dispiriting, and even the sight of a bandit being blown sky-high by his own dynamite can't make it better.

Ironically, this was made the same year as the nitro film par excellence: Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear. (1.5)

***



Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) - So, some thoughts on the 'Before [Time of Day]' trilogy...

Sunrise was ambitious and memorable, but strayed beyond its limitations into verbose pretension.

Sunset was older, wiser and richer in romance, precisely because it was more grounded and real (and set in Paris).

And Midnight? Well, this third walk-and-talk-athon - tougher, sadder and lighter on the pretty locales - is a movie made by people who've lived, and who've lived with these characters, pouring their knowledge of love, of life, and of Jesse and Celine into a brilliant, bristling examination of middle-age, marriage, parenthood, and the myriad joys and frustrations with which all are beset. Sure, there's bleak and pointed bickering to join the badinage, but isn't that the point?

The supporting cast is bafflingly amateurish - particularly veteran cinematographer Walter Lassally - but when Hawke and Delpy are centre-stage, and they usually are, exhibiting that unique chemistry, it's an astonishingly erudite and incisive movie, and one of the few deserving of that oft-cited adjective: life-affirming. (3.5)

***

McConaughey:



Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012) - I told you that Matthew McConaughey was amazing. I spent 10 years saying it, while all he did was stand around on rom-com posters, leaning against things, but would you listen? No you would not. But I was right, I am the best. (NB: If you did listen, please discount this introduction.)

Now we've got that settled: Mud.

This is one of the best films of the decade so far: a little like Lawn Dogs, with a touch of The Way, Way Back, immersed into the world of Beasts of the Southern Wild, and yet very much its own movie, with flavourful dialogue, real - though heightened - characters, and a point to all this, about the nature of love, friendship and sacrifice.

The story sees resourceful Southern teens, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the Chris-Chambers-alike, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), happen upon a handsomely brooding fugitive (McConaughey), hoping to reconnect with the love of his life, whilst hiding out from the cops and some hired guns. Meanwhile, Ellis's parents drift apart, the fugitive's mentor (Sam Shepard) sits quietly frowning, and our sympathies and understanding of the characters, shifts, separates and congeals anew.

Whilst its broad structure is fairly formulaic, what happens within it is bracingly original, and though it has six too many endings, it's still an extraordinarily effective, unusual and powerful film, with at least seven exceptional performances, one of them from McConaughey. I was right. (4)



Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) - The Wolf of Wall Street for nice people. Ikiru in America. A slightly selfish Schindler's List for the '80s. An acting masterclass from McConaughey and Leto, with great moments compensating for some recourse to formula. A'ight. (3)



TV: True Detective (Created by Nic Pizzolatto, 2014) - A dark, brooding, labyrinthine southern noir, stunningly acted, written and directed. I mostly just fancied the '95 McConaughey, though. (4)

***

Joan Blondell:



Miss Pacific Fleet (Ray Enright, 1935) - Warner Bros comedy about a popularity contest, which starts off well - with some snappy interplay between fast-talking Glenda Farrell and a deadpan Joan Blondell - but quickly degenerates into laboured, plotless nonsense, wasting its promising cast. And Minna Gomball. (2)



Traveling Saleslady (Ray Enright, 1935) - A minor but very likeable Warner Bros comedy with a feminist flavour, as Joan Blondell disproves her grumpy pops' contention that "women know nothing about business" by joining a rival firm and proceeding to destroy him, with the help of some 'cocktail toothpaste'.

It isn't really laugh-out-loud funny, but it's very enjoyable and has great fun with its progressive gender politics, providing a good, Lee Tracy-ish role for William Gargan as Blondell's womanising, increasingly frustrated sparring partner, and an underwritten one for the magnificent Glenda Farrell, who still makes it work.

Blondell takes care of the rest, a bundle of energy, at once modern and of-her-time: amusing, tough, sexy and strident, bearing the unapologetic contention that she's every bit as smart as the men around her - and probably a bit smarter.

Incidentally, the film features several of the same cast members - including the deeply unfunny Hugh Herbert - as Warner's notorious cut, banned and then lost Convention City (which is referenced in the trailer) and also, erm, climaxes with a convention. There are a couple of dirty jokes sneaked in here, but it's Code-era and so relatively sedate: something like Jean Harlow's Girl From Missouri was to her Red-Headed Woman. (3)

***

I'm also investigating some of John Ford's more obscure movies, beginning with Pilgrimage - a favourite of Ford biographer Joseph McBride - Doctor Bull and When Willie Comes Marching Home.



Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933) - One of John Ford's best early sound features, though it occupies the same world, both stylistically and thematically, as the movies Frank Borzage and F. W. Murnau made for the same studio - Fox - at the tail end of the silent era, 7th Heaven, Sunrise and Lucky Star.

It's a well-photographed melodrama of thawing and redemption, written by frequent Ford collaborator Dudley Nichols, about a terrifyingly possessive mother (Henrietta Crosman) who signs her son up to fight in WWI, in order to keep him away from the woman he loves, then - 10 years after his death in the Argonne - wrestles with her guilt on a mothers' pilgrimage to the fields of battle.

It's very deliberate, even ponderous at times, and easy to patronise: for its moments of early talkie stiltedness, corny improbabilities and typically incongruous, weak comedy. But, like Crosman's big, flawed central performance, it's also sincere, heartfelt and humane, and you'd have to be made of stern stuff not to draw something from its story, or be moved by its final two scenes. (3)



Doctor Bull (John Ford, 1933) - Legendary American filmmaker John Ford made a trio of films with famed raconteur, newspaper columnist and movie star, Will Rogers, a man so popular he'd nearly been nominated for President in 1932. The middle one, Judge Priest is, by any standards, a cast-iron classic, while Steamboat 'Round the Bend - their last - remains a flawed masterpiece, due to some judicious, perhaps unwise cuts made after Rogers' tragic demise in a plane crash.

Doctor Bull is the first and least of the bunch: like the others, a hobby-horse for Ford's values of tolerance and inclusion - not to mention his obsessive aversion to hypocrisy - and similarly shot through with Rogers' folksy, shambling good humour, but its social comment isn't quite so searing, and its jokes not quite so on-the-money. It's all relative, though, and this tale of a small-town physician dispensing pills, castor oil and wisdom certainly has its merits, with some genuinely touching romance, some clever barbs and the sort of intense Americana that only ever came from one director.

Andy Devine's comic relief is bloody awful, though - and how quickly does Rochelle Hudson get wasted?! (3)



When Willie Comes Marching Home (John Ford, 1950) - Hail the Conquering Hero, but with no jokes, as the greatest director in the history of American cinema shows once again that he can't really do comedy. But would really like to try.

Dan Dailey is a young patriot who becomes the first person in Punxatawney to sign up to fight. Sent off to train amidst much fanfare (some of it literal), he soon finds himself back in his home town as an instructor, patronised and pilloried by his former friends, who think he's a coward. Then he gets a shot at redemption...

The film is more stressful than funny, and its comedy is astonishingly witless and unfunny, but what it does do is provide a small number of Ford's 'grace notes', little flourishes of understated humanity a lot more memorable than the noisy bombast and lousy running gags going on around.

There's the couple weeping in the corner of the shot as the young soldiers pull out, Dailey's flutter of self-conscious acting as he gets to soothe his girl on (supposedly) the eve of battle, and that brilliant moment in which, unsure how to stand as a soldier and a man, he apes his father's posture, placing a hat silently over his chest. Then Ford drops the sentiment and plays the scene for laughs. Sigh.

Despite such minor joys - including a litany of great shots in the French countryside: that unique Fordian composition where the horizon is right at the top of the bottom of the frame and, oh, you just have to see it to believe it - there are only three really good scenes in the picture, and they're all domestic, a proper strong suit of Ford's.

One is Colleen Townsend's stoical speech to her man (Dailey) about how he's done her proud despite his building self-loathing. The second is Dailey's genuine farewell, in which his family first disbelieve his departure, then rush him in an explosion of emotion. And, finally, William Demarest's defence of his son in the face of danger: a sign that while Ford's funny bone was defective, he never lost the ability to evoke the sincerity and compassion of real human relationships - or to make us very nearly cry. (2)

***



Girl Missing (Robert Florey, 1933) - Gold diggers Glenda Farrell and Mary Brian investigate a murder in this fast, funny Warner Bros programmer, full of Pre-Code badinage and Farrell calling herself "mother" and saying things that probably made more sense in 1933. It sags slightly in the middle, taking the girls off screen for a while in order to set up the mystery, but Farrell's rat-a-tat delivery and Jules Furthman's dialogue are a treat, and there's fun support from both Lyle Talbot - as a raffish playboy - and Guy Kibbee, inevitably and invariably cast as a horny, red-faced old man. (3)

***



His Double Life (Arthur Hopkins, 1933) - Want to see Lillian Gish in a rom-com? Then I think this is the only chance you're ever going to get. In 1933, the silent screen legend had largely retreated to the stage - prior to her reinvention as a cinematic character actress - having had her career torpedoed by jealous studios and their press lapdogs. As a result, this was the only film she made between 1930 and 1942.

It's a real oddity, a London-set comedy-drama, decidedly stilted and based on contrivance, that sees a legendary, reclusive painter (Roland Young) beginning a new life after the media erroneously announces that he's dead. Gish is the calm, kind-hearted and matter-of-fact spinster with whom he falls in love.

The far-fetched story is very choppy, and Young's character is rather too narcissistic - more interested in his own legacy than the fact that his valet has just snuffed it - but there are a few good jokes and choice observations in the first half ("He's to be buried in the Abbey because he's a philanthropist, not because he's an artist. Oh, that's England all over"), and the leads do what they can to salvage the rest, prior to an almost incomprehensible climax.

His Double Life pales alongside the many comedic gems being pumped out by Hollywood during this period, but if you're a big fan of the leading lady, it's still a must. Her emotional sensitivity and economy of expression is much in evidence, even at this, the oddest time of her career. (2)

***

Thanks for reading.